This is Syria’s great chance for change

It is crucial that all sides approach June’s international conference with hope as well as caution

When Ban Ki-moon opens the promised international conference on Syria in Geneva next month, the war-ravaged country will experience the first sliver of hope it has dared to feel for months. A year has gone by since Russia and the United States approved guidelines for a transition to a more democratic and pluralistic Syria and it is a tragedy that so many lives have been wasted without any effort to implement the guidelines.

It has required several U-turns to bring about a new conference to discuss the issue. The US has dropped its precondition that Bashar al-Assad step down in advance of talks. Unlike Hillary Clinton, John Kerry seems to realise that Assad’s forces cannot be defeated without full-scale US intervention – a prospect that Barack Obama will not permit – and that prolonged conflict only strengthens al-Qaida and the other jihadis who have swarmed into Syria. For his part, Assad has dropped his demand that the armed opposition lay down its guns before he sends his people to meet them. His prime minister and several other ministers are expected in Geneva.

The Syrian opposition is the obstacle, or at least some of them. The secular nationalists in the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change promoted the Geneva idea and will attend keenly. The Syrian National Coalition, which is backed by western governments as well as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is still reluctant to turn up without a commitment that Assad’s departure is assured. To their credit, British and other western diplomats are urging them not to boycott and thereby hand Assad a propaganda victory.

A joker in the pack remains the British and French wish, matched by some senior officials in Washington, to lift the embargo on arms supplies to the rebels. Here too a U-turn is needed. Otherwise, there may be a temptation to tell the rebels that as long as they attend and behave with dignity they will get their weapons if the conference fails. This would be a recipe for disaster and an obvious invitation for the rebels to sabotage the conference by being unreasonable.

Far better to kick the arms issue into the long grass and concentrate on ensuring that the Geneva conference is not a one-day jamboree but the start of a serious process. A war that has taken so many lives, involves so many disparate armed groups, and is compounded by so much foreign interference cannot be ended in 48 hours. So the Geneva meeting needs to create working committees that will concentrate patiently on constitutional reform, humanitarian access, detainee release, local ceasefires and the re-introduction of UN observers. These steps can lead to a reduction of violence and the gradual return of displaced people to rebuild their homes.

Fairly early in the process there needs to be a coalition government of national unity that includes ministers from the opposition as well as from the current regime, as last year’s guidelines spelt out. This will take political courage on all sides, since al-Qaida and the other fundamentalists who have joined the fight are likely to denounce rebels who take part as collaborationists, or even assassinate them. The hardliners are in Syria for the long haul and even if the main opposition groups were to make a peace agreement, Syria is probably doomed to face a long-term armed insurgency in parts of the country, as well as regular suicide bombings in its main cities, for years to come. The precedent of today’s Iraq is all too likely to affect Syria too.

But, while the Geneva conference has to be viewed with caution as well as hope, it is crucial that all sides treat it properly as a genuine chance for change. Looking to score propaganda points or undermining it so as to renew the armed struggle with greater intensity will not serve Syria’s interests or those of its neighbours.

A quarter of the country’s people have lost their homes. Nearly 100,000 have lost their lives. The time for a more far-sighted approach is now.

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